Carolan, Turlough (Ó Cearbhalláin, Toirdhealbhach ) (1670–1738), Irish harper and composer, was born near Nobber, Co. Meath, the son of John Carolan, a small farmer or blacksmith. In 1684 the family moved to Ballyfarnon, Co. Roscommon, where John Carolan was employed by the MacDermott Roe family of Alderford House. Turlough received his early education through the patronage of Mrs MacDermott Roe (qv), who arranged for him to be apprenticed to a harper (also called MacDermott Roe) when the boy was blinded by smallpox at the age of eighteen. Carolan completed this apprenticeship in music and poetry in about 1691, and was provided with a guide, a horse, and funds to launch his career as an itinerant harper. In 1720 he married Mary Maguire of Co. Fermanagh, and they had six daughters and one son. The family settled on a farm near Mohill, Co. Leitrim.
Eighteenth-century sources (including Walker's Historical memoirs of the Irish bards) suggest that Carolan was not a gifted performer, but that he quickly began to compose and write verse. His earliest documented composition is ‘Sí bheag, sí mhór’, written for George Reynolds (qv) (d. 1786) of Lough Sgur (Scur), Co. Leitrim. The titles of his compositions confirm that his work was largely occasional, written as it was for the patrons whom he visited throughout Ireland over a period of some forty-five years: names such as ‘Lady Athenry’, ‘Mrs Bermingham’, ‘Lady Blayney’, ‘The Hon. Thomas Burke’, ‘Mrs Delany’, ‘Dr John Hart’, etc., are routinely attached to melodies attributed to him, many of which also have verse in Irish. It is thereby not fanciful to identify Carolan as an ‘Irish bard’, even if the tradition of reacaire which he represented had otherwise lapsed into silence by the end of the seventeenth century. Although itinerant harpers survived into the nineteenth century, Carolan's achievement as a composer (and as a writer of accompanying verse) in the eighteenth century is unique. As late as 1797, Edward Bunting (qv) affirmed that one participant in the Belfast Harp Festival had acquired over one hundred melodies by Carolan, even if his compositions were otherwise spurned by such harpers as Denis Hempson (qv) (O'Hempsey) and Arthur O'Neill (qv).
This distinction between Carolan's music and that of the wider harp tradition to which he belonged provides an indication as to his significance in Irish cultural history. His musical style is an admixture of Irish folk melody and the influence of the Italian baroque, a synthesis most clearly expressed in his use of sequences, melodic imitation, ornamentation, and dance forms. Scholars have relied on the correspondence of Charles O'Conor (qv) of Belanagare (1710–91), the son of Carolan's chief patron, and on various ‘anonymous correspondents’ cited in Historical memoirs of the Irish bards (1786), by Joseph Walker (qv), to substantiate Carolan's preference for Italian music, even if there remains considerable dispute surrounding his meeting with Francesco Geminiani (1687–1762), who was intermittently resident in Ireland from the late 1720s onwards, and who was closely connected to some of Carolan's patrons, including Mrs Delany (qv). Whatever the accuracy of such sources in respect of Carolan's astonishing ability to replicate Italian compositions at one hearing, the printed sources of his music published in the eighteenth century do suggest strong evidence that he was intimately conversant with the structure and technique of baroque style. The best-known example of Carolan's music in this respect is the tune entitled ‘Mrs Power, or Carolan's concerto’, which first appeared in John Lee's A favourite collection of the so much admired old Irish tunes, the original and genuine compositions of Carolan, the celebrated Irish bard (1780). In his preface to A general collection of the ancient Irish music (1797), Bunting remarks that this work manifested ‘evident imitations of Corelli, in which the exuberant fancy of that admired composer is happily copied’. More recent scholarship (Rimmer, 1987) suggests that a variety of stylistic influences, from French and Netherlandish sources, in addition to Italianate forms, is evident in the c.220 works now attributed to Carolan. It is the indigenous Irish style of jigs, instrumental elegies, and lyric songs which nevertheless predominates in many of the surviving melodies, notably in those works which bear the title ‘planxty’, a miscellaneous designation used for occasional pieces of varied character which may have originated with Carolan. Many of the more widely disseminated planxties (as in ‘Planxty Brown’, ‘Planxty Fanny Powers’, and ‘Planxty Hugh O'Donnell’) are bipartite jigs which share much in common with dance music directly from the tradition, notwithstanding certain melodic and rhythmic figurations which recur so frequently that they serve to identify Carolan's characteristically ebullient style.
There is evidence that on at least one occasion Carolan's music entered the Italian tradition as the source of a set of variations on his composition ‘Plearáca na Ruarcach’ by Lorenzo Bocchi, an Italian composer resident in Edinburgh and perhaps Dublin between 1724 and 1729. Bocchi's variations were published by John Neal (qv) and William Neal (qv) in A collection of the most celebrated Irish tunes (1724). Known in English as ‘Planxty O'Rourke’ or ‘O'Rourke's feast’, the Irish text was written about 1720 by Hugh McGauran and an English verse translation was made by Jonathan Swift (qv).
From the time of Swift to the publication of Walker's Irish bards in 1786, the reception of Carolan centred upon his dislocated position as the representative of a reduced native culture who stood between two traditions: the old order of Gaelic Ireland and the new sovereignty of the Anglo-Irish. Poems such as The progress of music in Ireland (1725), by Matthew Pilkington (qv), and Laurence Whyte's Dissertation on Italian and Irish music with some panegyrick on Carrallan our late Irish Orpheus (1740), together with the essay ‘Carolan: the last Irish bard’ (1760), by Oliver Goldsmith (qv), and the forty-fourth letter of A philosophical survey of the south of Ireland (1777), by Thomas Campbell (qv), implicitly illustrate a degree of consensus among ascendancy writers on Carolan's importance as a ‘natural’ musician, more preferable by far than the contemporary vogue for things Italian. Not only is the sense of two musical cultures firmly established in these writings, but Carolan's position therein is conventionally projected as that of a ‘Homer’ from among the native Irish, whose impact on ascendancy thought is one of wonder, astonishment, and antiquarian curiosity. Carolan, for such writers, belongs to a dead culture.
With the publication of Walker's ‘Life of Carolan’, appended to his Irish bards (1786), an explicit attempt to recognise the composer as a ‘first rate musical genius’ was equated with the impact of G. F. Handel (qv) on music in England. The crucial distinction between the two composers, however, lay in the dislocated status implied by Carolan's mastery of a (then) generally defunct tradition by comparison with Handel's cultivation of a living one. This, certainly, was the point of view that informed Charles Burney's withering review of Walker, in which he allowed Edmund Spenser's (qv) dismissal of the Irish bard's reputation (‘little better than that of piper to the White Boys and other savage and lawless ruffians’) to stand as his own.
Although Carolan's reputation gained enormously in the nineteenth century, especially through the collections of Edward Bunting and George Petrie (qv), the difficulty of reconciling his absorption of European models of musical thought with his status as an ‘Irish’ musician endured. By the beginning of the twentieth century, leading figures in the Irish Folk Song Society were inclined to disavow Carolan's achievement in terms of the ‘purity’ of the ethnic tradition, a point of view most forcibly expressed by George Henebry, whose Handbook of Irish music (1928) resolves that Carolan's tunes ‘show him to be no Irish musician’. It was not until the publication in 1958 of Carolan: the life, times and music of an Irish harper by Donal O'Sullivan (qv) that this extreme point of view was satisfactorily redressed. In the 1960s the substitution by Seán Ó Riada (qv) of the harpsichord for the harp in his many arrangements of Carolan's music, together with the harp performances of Carolan by Derek Bell (qv) with ‘The Chieftains’, greatly increased the dissemination of the composer's works, even if disagreement among practitioners and scholars of Carolan still obtains with regard to his standing in the domain of Irish traditional music.
Following the death of his wife, Mary, in 1733, Carolan returned in 1738 to the house of his first patron, Mrs MacDermott Roe, where he died 25 March 1738.